As I recently came to appreciate, what makes a kid friendly software app successful isn't necessarily obvious to adults. Adults want clean and shiny. Geeks like myself might have affinity for elegance. But kids? Kids are a whole other story. They want interactive and fun. Our 7 year old has no problem using his imagination to see a castle where an adult may see an upside down cardboard box. But if it's not fun and in terms he can grasp, it's not going to hold his attention.
It was with these insights in mind, that I was especially thankful I tripped over Chris Ball's Narrative Interface post. Apparently Chris is heavily involved in OLPC, a project near and dear to my heart. In his post, he links to a wonderful talk that introduces the notion of a Narrative UI. I'll put the video below, and highly recommend you check it out.
Very briefly, a Narrative UI suggests that you turn the operation of a computer into something that approximates a story. For example, rather than merely showing a menu of apps, you might take the user on a quest - where each stop along the way involves a different piece of software (oh look, I'm at the Music Castle, where I need to make music). It sounded unnecessary to me at first, but after watching the talk I'm pretty much convinced.
The idea of walking a kid through the computer, ideally at their own pace and in a context that's customized to them, means that they'll get into an exploration frame of mind. I'd think it would make it easier to introduce new concepts in a fun way, all while proceeding at the child's pace.
I've always believed that the key to success at the one laptop per child project was not the hardware, but the software. Sure, the hardware is fun to play with, but it's the software that will actually determine whether kids are going to learn on these things. And that software needs serious innovation, which I think the Narrative UI is an excellent example of.
One last point before I shush up and let you watch the video. I think my next parent hacking software endevor is going to be to install Sugar on a Stick. That is, install the software that runs on OLPC laptops on a regular old USB thumbdrive and let our 7 year old go to town on it.
Diamond Age by sugarlabs